A shoe last is hand carved by a SAS employee.
A shoe last is hand carved by a SAS employee. Credit: Courtesy / SAS

The Armstrong family was barely making ends meet when they began making shoes.

Nearly 42 years later, the shoes are an established comfort brand known for premium leather, hand-craftsmanship, and the perfect fit, with many styles still hand-sewn today.

SAS Shoemakers is the only shoe manufacturer in San Antonio – hence the name, an acronym for San Antonio Shoes. This past June, a Times Square billboard ad featuring local publicist Uchennaya Ogba in a pair of SAS shoes was perhaps more proof that Maine-born friends Terry Armstrong and Lew Hayden had come a long way.

But the early days were hard, with Terry bringing home small pieces of leather from the factory so his teenage daughters could pitch in to help, hand-sewing shoe uppers for full assembly back at the factory the next day. Night after night eventually turned into several years of hard work, and by 1979, the business was beginning to grow.

“They were young, they had their ideas, and they decided they could do it themselves,” said Lisa Armstrong, Terry’s daughter. “When we moved here, we went from rental house to rental house because our dad was sure we weren’t going to make it.” While Terry’s wife, Regina, supported the family with a job at UPS, Terry struggled against the tide of shoe manufacturers moving operations overseas in the 1970s. “No one would lend them money,” her sister Cheryl Remmert added. “Nothing was in their favor.”

Terry persevered and prospered and eventually bought out Hayden before his death in 2005. Now in the hands of Armstrong’s kids, the company is run by Nancy Richardson, named CEO in 2012.

SAS is now one of only 230 shoe manufacturers in the United States, according to a spokesman with the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America. About 25 million pairs of shoes are made annually in the U.S. even though 99 percent of all shoes sold in America are manufactured elsewhere, according to a Business Insider report.

Located in the former La Salle High School buildings on South Zarzamora Street, the SAS Shoemakers headquarters is where the family-owned enterprise manages 125 company stores across the country and three factories – one in San Antonio and the others in Del Rio and Acuña, Mexico. It also serves as the distribution point to 1,000 other retail outlets in the U.S. and 18 countries around the world.

SAS makes 116 combinations of sizes and widths in men’s shoes and 88 for women, with almost every style conceived, designed, and manufactured in-house.

Some styles are so popular and ubiquitous, they’ve been around nearly as long as the company, though 40 percent of all SAS shoe styles were developed in the past five years. The SAS model of offering the same style shoe, instead of following fashion trends, allows retailers to order only what they need instead of making a large upfront investment on a guess.

Nancy Richardson, CEO of SAS. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“What I often hear from retailers is, ‘All this fashion stuff is great, but what pays my rent every month is the SAS inventory,’” Richardson said.

The typical SAS customer is 40 and older, people who work in jobs that require them to be on their feet for long periods or who wear hard-to-find sizes. Like other premium comfort shoes, SAS shoes aren’t inexpensive, with prices ranging between $125 and $300. But there’s a difference between SAS and its closest competitor brands – Ecco, New Balance, Rockport, Clarke, and Naot, to name a few.

“What really drives the growth for us is the strength of the product,” Richardson said. “What we know from every market study we’ve ever done, as well as our gut, is that if we get you into a pair of shoes, you’re coming back for another pair. We have extremely loyal customers.”

In 2017, SAS bid against major athletic shoe manufacturers and won a government contract to design and produce the athletic training shoes worn by all U.S. military recruits. The Mission 1 is made in all black and began shipping out in July. But consumers can purchase a colorful version – the first performance shoe SAS has ever manufactured and sold.

Tractor-trailers come and go from the gated Southwest Side plant on Sas Drive where activity is nonstop on a floor sectioned according to the 87 steps in the SAS shoemaking process. That’s versus four steps in a typical shoe factory where computers and machines do most of the work, said Project Manager Tyler Remmert. In fact, SAS gives a whole new meaning to “do it yourself.”

Skilled SAS shoemakers hand-carve the thousands of proprietary SAS shoe forms, or lasts, made in top-secret rooms of high-density polyethylene plastic and stacked neatly on shelves. Other workers cut tanned leather using metal die cutters that are lined up along the walls. Throughout the factory on New Laredo Highway, shoemakers hand-lace, machine-stitch, buff and glue, inspect, and pack shoes as the footwear works its way down the assembly line.

Boxed for retail, completed pairs are transported a mile back to headquarters, home to SAS Shoemakers administration, a showroom, the employee gym, and a woodshop where SAS craftsmen also build retail display furniture for company stores.

“We believe that to do things right, we do it ourselves,” said Lisa Armstrong.

With a company culture that is admittedly private, Richardson wouldn’t disclose the number of shoes the company manufactures nor how many people they employ. “We want the emphasis to be on the product,” she said.

But on a tour of the factory given to the Rivard Report, Remmert greeted workers like family – people he’s known while growing up as the grandson of Terry Armstrong. One was Delma Castro, a 42-year employee who is among four of the original 13 who helped start the factory and is still working there.

Castro wears a floral-print cobbler’s apron, like many of the women in the factory, and also like most, she doesn’t have an actual job title. “She can do a little bit of everything,” Remmert said.

Another was Mary Garza, a 38-year employee who is in charge of expediting the lasts and developed a system of restocking the lasts stored in her department using an extensive array of tiny cubbies and dry-erase boards.

New employees are trained according to a unique SAS system in which the worker learns one skill at a time in a rotation throughout the factory, then back to where he or she started to help train another new employee. But hiring the skilled workers needed for manufacturing shoes remains a challenge in the current economy, Richardson said; there’s a “now hiring” sign on the fence outside and the company website currently advertises eight openings for jobs in Texas.

Many San Antonians know SAS for the General Store, where the aroma of freshly made popcorn at the factory site on New Laredo makes it feel like you’re taking a step back in time.

In addition to the hundreds of yellow-tagged pairs of factory-defect shoes arranged by size and sold at a discount, there’s an old soda fountain serving snacks and drinks, a shiny red 1939 Buick Eight Special and other antiques on display, and American-made products to buy, from salsa and syrup to gumballs and candy for $2 a bag.

SAS Shoemakers also sells its line of handbags at the General Store and in the retail outlets it operates locally in Schertz, and at The Rim, The Quarry, and Westlake shopping centers.

In its stores as well as the factory, the company’s humble start, family values, and work ethic are ever-present.

Terry Armstrong’s portrait still hangs on a wall near where, on a Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving, long tables in the SAS factory break area were stacked with frozen turkeys. At the end of the day’s shift, Richardson, with Lisa and Cheryl, kept up a company tradition, giving each shoemaker the gift of a turkey.

Avatar photo

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.